French military forces killed al-Qaida's North Africa chief, Abdelmalek Droukdel, during an operation in Mali, officials said Friday.
"On June 3, French army forces, with the support of their local partners, killed the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his closest collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali," French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly wrote on Twitter.
French forces had been hunting Droukdel, a key Islamist fighter, for more than seven years, officials said.
The French-led operation against Droukdel was aided by U.S. forces, which provided intelligence and surveillance support to “fix the target,” according to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
"This mission is a collective win,” AFRICOM spokesman Colonel Chris Karns told VOA.
"This was a great example of cooperation and partnership to get after a common threat,” he said, praising France’s commitment to fighting both al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked terror groups in West Africa.
Officials said Droukdel, who was known to be involved in all aspects al-Qaida’s operations in the region, had been seeking to expand the amount of territory under his control and increase the number of attacks.
“This definitely is a blow to AQIM and certainly degrades their ability to plan and carry out operations,” Karns added.
The announcement of the death of Droukdel comes almost six months after former colonial power France and regional states combined their military forces under one command structure to focus on fighting IS-linked militants in the border regions of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, according to a Reuters report.
Droukdel, among North Africa's most experienced militants, took part in an Islamist militant takeover of northern Mali. In 2013, a French military intervention pushed them back and scattered the fighters across the Sahel region.
Droukdel was believed to be hiding in the mountains of northern Algeria, according to a Reuters report. Al-Qaida North Africa was the dominant jihadist force in the region, staging several high-profile deadly attacks until 2013, when it fractured as many militants flocked to the more extremist IS as it seized territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya, according to the news service.
It remained active in North Africa's largely desert and often scarcely governed Sahel region. In Mali, it focused its activities to the north in Libya and Tunisia. As IS waned, it sought to lure new talent from among IS veterans.
Parly said that French forces, which number about 5,100 in the region, had also on May 19 captured Mohamed el Mrabat, a fighter she identified as a veteran militant in the region and a member of IS in the Greater Sahara, a Reuters report said.
"Our forces, in cooperation with their local partners ... will continue to track these (people) down without respite," Parly said, according to Reuters.
Critics in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability. Anti-French sentiment has grown as militants have strengthened their foothold, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.
Parly told Reuters that earlier this week about 100 special forces from other European countries would be deployed to the region to support French and regional troops.
Both France and the United States have been calling on other European countries to contribute more to the fight against terror groups in Africa, especially as the U.S. military looks to move forces to counter threats posed by powers like Russia and China.
Members of the global coalition to defeat IS have also expressed a desire to focus additional efforts in Africa, but planning has been delayed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
In a communique issued following a virtual meeting Thursday, coalition members promised to move ahead with those efforts, with a focus on “capacity building …upon the request and prior consent of the countries concerned, and be coordinated with existing efforts and initiatives.”
French officials, however, have urged the U.S. to keep some forces in Africa, stressing that some U.S. capabilities, especially in the areas of intelligence and surveillance, cannot be replaced.
VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information for this report also came from Reuters.